Integrity is the quality that expresses ethics in action, but in business?

According to the New Oxford, integrity is:

  • The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
  • The state of being whole and undivided.
  • The condition of being unified, unimpaired, or sound in construction.
  • Internal consistency or lack of corruption in electronic data.

To live by moral principles is easier to preach than do in business. Whether to ship a mediocre batch of goods or take a loss, that is the question. Easier to answer in the abstract than in the moment of truth.  It is the seemingly unimportant day-to-day decisions that add up.  Ethics in action can be tricky when it affects your wallet and the issues seem small. Worse, sometimes a white lie is better than a hurtful truth.

Picture of crazy eyed glasses inviting you to change your glasses to see things differently

The state of being whole and undivided can also be described as knowing who you are, and focusing on what you do well, one of the core principles need to drive a successful business. Too many end up losing their way.

Unified can be seen as everyone aligned behind a shared vision of who are we, and who do we want to be. How we define success, for ourselves and as a company.

Unimpaired and sound in construction can mean free of the uneccessary and soul crushing things that get in the way of taking pride in and enjoying work. To be unified also brings to mind skills training, too often neglected. Training forges the foundation on which consistent quality is built. How much time and resources do you spend on effective training? By effective I mean personalized for your company, so people learn what they really need, and not a lot of stuff they don't.

Internal consistency is a result of  written ways of doing,  crafted collaboratively and followed, to be constantly improved; you can’t improve a thing if you don’t know what is really being done with it. Agreed Upon Operational Definitions and Procedures are a “social contract” which people in companies agree to follow, and should never orders written in the office or they are doomed.

As for data integrity: the job of accounting is to count, not dictate how the things counted will be made, handled or acquired. Integrity needs harmony between essential functions. Operations makes, Marketing plans, Sales sells and Accounting counts. Operations should not be forced to adapt how they do things if it doesn't make sense. The real work of accounting should be to supply good data in simple to understand visual reports in a way that operations, marketing and sales can use them to to do their job. Like management, it is a support and not the engine, and should communicate rather than control.

Integrity hints at a balance between the commercial, society, nature and the person. A striking failure in current corporate law is that an inanimate entity, the corporation, is given the same rights as a human being, without many of the responsiblities. They should exist at the service of human beings whose time is precious and  limited. But just because current law gives  some corporations rights with few responsibilities doesn’t mean that companies can’t aim higher on their own. Lets use a little horse-sense. Popular culture may glorify the myth of profit at all cost, "you are fired" and the rich English Lord heir becomes the king of the jungle. It is a myth. There was no Tarzan. Action movies are fairy tales written for 10-year-old boys. We don’t have to be ruled by popular culture. We have a choice. We can choose building human capital over a singular focus on little green sheets of paper.

What do you mean by “results?” Is a good result a short-term profit that leads to a fall, as we have too often witnessed? My vote goes to companies like Rhoads and Sons, who rode a sense of responsibility and community to profits from 1702 to 1995.

Do The Math

8 to 10 percent net profit, invested for 293 years at the long-term average return of 12 to 13 percent adds up to?

Here’s an idea: the next time any of you are faced with a business decision that makes us feel queasy, like a child about to do something they know they shouldn’t do, listen to the inarticulate tones of your heart. How’s that for practical business advice?

This is the continuation of my previous post on Integrity and Ethics in Business.

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

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